Graffiti and street art have been back in the national conversation with Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, the publication of the definitive History of American Graffiti, and LA MoCA’s Art in the Streets. The MoCA show was immersed in controversy before it even opened, with the whitewashing of a mural by Blu, the incarceration of several artists in the show, and a backlash against vandalism.
In the video, Jake Dobkin of Streetsy and Gothamist talks about how the internet has changed street art, why commerce infects everything, and what Wikileaks has to do with the future of graffiti. Below, Artlog contributor Natalie Fasano visits major artists from The History of American Graffiti and tells the long history of the medium, from Kilroy to MoCA.
“Graffiti is the bastard child of freedom and chaos." If that statement is true, then so demystifies the ubiquitous art form’s founders and followers across generations. The History of American Graffiti by Caleb Neelon and Roger Gastman, describes itself as a pioneer in the public documentation of graffiti, a medium elusive in its politically-mandated disappearance and practitioners’ observance of lifelong anonymity. Who was CORNBREAD? TAKI-183? Who is Banksy? What does he look like? Who cares. Gastman and Neelon are uninterested in the answers. Instead, they focus on what these prolific writers left behind. American Graffiti is a portrait of a cultural movement begun by American youth and minority cultures in the ’60s and ’70s, a form of self-expression and a way for disinherited social groups to band together and circumvent the exclusive and shady world of American power and politics.
Neelon and Gastman interviewed over five hundred graffiti writers during the course of their research, digging into a cultural history only lightly touched on by the mass media. Graffiti’s story is often told by “civilians,” non-writers less interested in graffiti as an art form than as a herald of American dystopia. It is much easier to make sense of statistical increases in local gang activity and murder rates or to remark on the impotence of a political incumbent with visually stimulating images of ruin. Graffiti, highly visible and perennially illegal, was sold to the public as evidence of malicious, unseen gangs of vandals and trespassers. Feeling impotent in the face of rampant civil unrest in the ’60s and ’70s, and either unable or unwilling to address its root causes, politicians buffered waning poll numbers with campaigns against graffiti writing on the walls, subway cars, and freight trains of their constituencies. Today, much of the evidence left of graffiti writing through the decades is found in the dusty archives of camera-happy civilians who shot something that looked cool and forgot about it. Neelon and Gastman, over years of industrious inquiry and research, rooted out the photographs.
Perhaps the most iconic examples are the famous “Kilroy Was Here” tags during WWII. Their sheer volume drew the attention of GIs who, seeing the words everywhere, adopted the tag as an emblem of American strength and power. The continued mystery of Kilroy’s identity inspires the imaginations of emerging graffiti artists to this day, an emblem of brazenness in the face of adversity. YES2, a New York City writer from the ’90s who now co-owns Tuff City Tattoo in the Bronx, remarks: “Caleb [Neelon] finds civilians with archives of photos from the ’70s, non-graffiti people who didn’t realize their value to graffiti enthusiasts. Kilroys: it’s almost like meeting God, Jesus, the first mythological being. Suppose they found his relatives, some shit like that? That’s insane.”
The illegality of graffiti spawned an interesting social structure among the foundational writers in the ’60s and ’70s. Truly a youth movement, all of them were still too young to attend college. Tags formed the initial basis for local recognition and relationships among writers. In the new world of graffiti, you were your tag and you became the persona you made for yourself. In many cases, graffiti and the peer groups it engendered among local writers acted as foster parents, steering them through the tumultuous years of youth with the promise of a superhuman identity and an indelible mark on history. Eventually, as the old school grew older and became mentors themselves to the up-and-coming generation, stylistic cross-pollination proliferated far beyond local scenes. YES2 remembers, “The writers whose names were ‘up,’ they were like gods, movie stars, Liz Taylor. Once you meet Liz Taylor or Obama, hang out with them, they become regular people. The mystery is gone.” Interest in keeping up the mystery, then, was as much about maintaining power over the persona as a desire to remain out of jail.
The difficulty with understanding graffiti writing as an artistic movement is due to its inextricable link to more violent and problematic American subcultures. The “broken glass theory,” forwarded in 1982 by social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling, provided intellectual backbone to the argument against graffiti and for harsher criminal penalties. Broken glass, or any small act of vandalism, was considered indicative of larger, and more dangerous, social problems. Graffiti thus became the bastard poster boy of unseen evil flourishing in the underbelly of civilized (white) American society. This frightening and simplistic portrait leaves out the hardships of other social groups. No one thought to ask why Latin American gangs flourished in Florida and California, or why hippie drug culture spread among white kids from “good families.” Graffiti’s emergence on the scene and its subsequent explosion throughout the United States and worldwide is indicative more of the government’s failings in the case of youth and minority cultures than vice versa. Racially motivated crimes and instances of police brutality on a local level, coupled with national concerns over war in Vietnam and economic recession, fueled the fire of urban decay and social revolt.
The emergence of the psychedelic hippie culture inspired new venues of self-expression, experimentation, and activism. To graffiti, this meant more abstract, surrealist forms. As lines of cross-cultural and cross-continental influence opened up, writers began to further explore the potential of graffiti as an art. Some writers went as far as to leave letters behind completely, what some traditional writers refer to as “that mural shit,” which featured pop-culture images and iconography.
Although murals emerged on the urban scene in America long before reaching New York City, the crackdown on NYC subway tagging in the ’80s left writers looking elsewhere for blank space. No longer able to enjoy the sight of tags “running” the intercity transit lines, they looked to water towers, gang-controlled concrete riverbeds, freeway signs, commercial billboards, even the female body and. in one case. an elephant at the Bronx Zoo. There was plenty of room to experiment and leave one’s mark in an ongoing effort to reclaim the spaces and cultures that society had chosen to forget. “Traditional graffiti was done because we didn’t have a system or anyone helping us,” says Revok, a prolific LA writer in the ’90s and no stranger to jail. “The Mayor comes down the block in a truck with a paint roller. [People think] ‘Wow, he did something.’ It’s easy to do. Meanwhile, he’s doing other corrupt shit.”
Mainstream culture has begun to take another look at graffiti as an art form, painting the walls of galleries in Chelsea and LA, but many graffiti artists unanimously recognize this as the symptom of a cyclical trend, occurring roughly every ten years, that will soon pass. A common wariness and distrust of mainstream media outlets, especially with the advent of the Internet and blog culture, remains. Revok adds: “I don’t think there needs to be more [documentation]. There needs to be more quality, more well-informed publicity on our art, movement, whatever the hell you want to refer to it as. You need to go to people who know what the fuck they’re talking about.” And that, it seems, needs to be done with the guidance of the only ones who know – the writers themselves.
Graffiti was never about making money. Those who cashed in on their talents, either through gallery representation or graphic design, sometimes remain nostalgic for their beginnings as writers. “I’m inherently populist about graphic design and the ethos of graffiti,” says Eric Haze, New York City writer from the ’90s and current CEO of a successful graffiti-inspired street wear label and design company. Diehard writers view the entrance of many iconic graffiti writers into the cultural mainstream as a double-edged sword, or what Haze calls the Golden Handcuffs: “[Today], the full cycle’s at work,” he says. “There’s a cross pollination, between graffiti, aerosol artists, and street artists. Staying true to your roots and the essence of graffiti can be a mixed bag, Golden Handcuffs. I’m evolving as an artist who grew up around the written word and letter form. It was an aesthetic-political decision I made as a teenager [to leave writing and attend art school]. Now, I have a personal imperative to get off the box, roll the sleeves up, and get back to work, to find new voices.”
FREEDOM, an iconic New York writer and artist, managed to balance his writing with art. For him, “street art and graffiti simply have to co-exist. Street art lacks the bravado historical broadness that comes with graffiti; graffiti on the other hand doesn’t strive as hard as street art.” He also sees the current LA MoCA show as a triumph for both: “In the end, the cream usually rises to the top. This might be the first time that the movement is genuinely being viewed as having legs. With the MoCA show, it looks like the writers that stayed with [graffiti writing] will finally get the respect they deserve – forget the money, open the museum doors!”
Revok, who was sentenced to 180 days in jail for vandalism shortly after the writing of this piece, details the nostalgia of youthful writing best: “When I started off, I was a kid. I wanted to do what the other guys were doing, and it tapped into other curiosities and obsessions. I wanted to get people’s attention and respect, do something exciting. As I grew and matured, it became a journey of self-exploration. Facing fear, insecurities, overcoming those things. Discovering human truths, who I was. It may sound corny or farfetched, but to do anything with that level of commitment, level of intensity… it isn’t about being angry or fucking stuff up. I hate all advertisements, the bullshit we’re subjected to every day. I don’t understand the mentality, to make you feel insecure about yourself. Graffiti and street artists, we’re not asking for anything; we’re just trying to improve the environment. I’m not out to destroy anything or to impose on anyone’s personal freedom.”
What are writers like Revok out for? Nothing. And that is perhaps the most difficult thing of all to understand in a culture built on capitalistic ambition and obsession with objective monetization. For many, graffiti is the proverbial tree in the forest; if it falls and no curator, museum director, or collector is around, will anyone hear it? Those who listen for it, will. And as for the rest, who gives a fuck?